When she was sworn in on January 3 as a Democratic senator from California, Kamala Harris became only the second African-American woman to serve in the Senate, as well as the first-ever person of South Asian descent to serve. But being a pioneer isn’t new for her. The child of immigrants from Jamaica and India, Harris was also the first woman elected as District Attorney of San Francisco and the first woman, the first African-American, and the first person of South Asian descent to become Attorney General of California. Those are just a few of her inspiring firsts—read on for 13 facts about this trailblazing woman.
1. HER NAME IS JUST DIVINE.
Her full name is Kamala (pronounced “comma-la”) Devi Harris. Her mother, Shyamala, a Hindu, gave her daughters names taken from Hindu mythology in part to connect her children to their heritage. “A culture that worships goddesses produces strong women,” Shayamala told the Los Angeles Times in 2004.
Kamalā is one of many Sanskrit words meaning lotus, as well as a name for Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth and good fortune. Harris’s middle name, Devi, is a Sanskrit word used within Hinduism as the general term for a goddess. (Shyamala named her second daughter Maya Lakshmi, continuing the goddess trend.)
2. SHE COMES FROM AN IMPRESSIVE AND INTERNATIONAL FAMILY.
Kamala Harris was born in Oakland, California to two ambitious graduate students—both immigrants. Her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, was raised in southern India and completed her undergraduate education at the University of Delhi at just 19, at which point she came to the U.S. to pursue a doctorate in endocrinology at the University of California, Berkeley. Shyamala was supposed to complete her studies and then return to India for an arranged marriage, but instead, she became active in the American civil rights movement. There she met Donald Harris, a Jamaican native who also came to the United States as a young adult to pursue doctoral work at Berkeley in economics. Shyamala ended up marrying Donald, and stayed in the U.S. By marrying for love outside her Brahmin caste—and outside her culture entirely—Shyamala made a very bold choice.
But Shyamala had been raised to act on her conscience. Her father, P.V. Gopalan, was active in the Indian independence movement and then became a high-ranking civil servant who fought corruption and acted as an adviser to newly independent nations, including Zambia. Her mother, Rajam Gopalan, had been betrothed at 12 and married at 16, but grew into a self-assured woman who used her position as an upper-caste wife to advocate for less advantaged women. During the 1940s, Rajam would drive around in her Volkswagen bug with a bullhorn, telling poor women how to access birth control. “My grandfather would joke that her community activism would be the end of his career,” Harris wrote in her book, Smart on Crime. “That never stopped her.”
3. SHE GREW UP IN THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT.
Harris likes to say she grew up with “a stroller’s-eye view of the civil rights movement.” Her parents would bring her to rallies and demonstrations around the Bay Area, and she has written that her “earliest memories are of a sea of legs marching around the streets and the sounds of shouting.”
Harris’s parents divorced when she was seven, after which she and her sister spent most of their time with their mother in an apartment in the flatlands area of Berkeley, a working-class neighborhood that was primarily African-American. Even as a small child, Harris picked up the language of the movement. Shyamala liked to recount the time her eldest daughter, then a toddler, was fussing and, when asked what she wanted, cried out, “Fweedom!”
4. SHE HAD A MULTICULTURAL CHILDHOOD.
Harris also grew up steeped in multiple rich cultures. “I grew up with a strong Indian culture, and I was raised in a black community,” Harris told AsianWeek in 2003. “All my friends were black and we got together and cooked Indian food and painted henna on our hands, and I never felt uncomfortable with my cultural background.” The two Harris girls, Kamala and Maya, sang in the choir at a black Baptist church and attended a Hindu temple with their mother.
They also had the chance to travel extensively. The sisters traveled to Jamaica with their father to visit his family and, every two years, went to India with Shyamala.“When Kamala was in first grade,” Shyamala told San Francisco Magazine, “one of her teachers said to me, ‘You know, your child has a great imagination. Every time we talk about someplace in the world she says, “Oh, I’ve been there.’ So I told her, ‘Well, she has been there!’ India, England, the Caribbean, Africa—she had been there.”
Harris also spent time living in Canada. When she was in her early teens, her mother, by then a scientist studying breast cancer, took a position doing research at Jewish General Hospital in Montreal, Quebec, and teaching at McGill University. Harris completed high school in Montreal and returned to the U.S. for college, attending Howard University in Washington, D.C. Her father had become an economics professor at Stanford, and Harris followed in his footsteps by majoring in economics, adding a double major in political science.
5. SHE FIRST GOT A TASTE OF POLITICS DURING COLLEGE.
Harris’s first-ever campaign was for freshman class representative of the liberal arts student council at Howard University. Harris also sharpened her public speaking skills on Howard’s debate team and joined the sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha, all while organizing mentor programs for minority youths and demonstrating against apartheid. “The thing that Howard taught me is that you can do any collection of things, and not one thing to the exclusion of the other,” Harris said last year. “You could be homecoming queen and valedictorian. There are no false choices at Howard.”
With Howard located in the nation’s capital, Harris explored a number of potential paths for public service while in college, working as a tour guide at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, serving as a press aide at the Federal Trade Commission, and interning for Senator Alan Cranston of her home state of California.
6. SHE’S WANTED TO BE A LAWYER SINCE SHE WAS A CHILD.
Growing up, Harris always wanted to be a lawyer. “They were the heroes growing up,” she told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2009. “They were the architects of the civil rights movement. I thought that that was the way you do good things and serve and achieve justice. It was pretty simple.” In particular, she cites Constance Baker Motley, Charles Hamilton Houston, and Thurgood Marshall as her role models.
After completing her undergraduate education at Howard, Harris returned to California for law school, attending the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. But rather than take up civil rights litigation or criminal defense work, Harris decided to become a prosecutor—a choice she’s said “surprised” her family members. But growing up in the Bay Area, she had seen the impact of law enforcement on disadvantaged populations and wanted to use the law to protect the vulnerable and correct imbalances of power. Being a prosecutor gave Harris more power to change the criminal justice system from within—choosing who to prosecute, what crimes to focus on, and which people to present with options for rehabilitation rather than prison.
As a prosecutor, Harris felt that she could counter racially based narratives about crime among other prosecutors. Talking to The New York Times, she recalled hearing colleagues discuss whether to charge certain defendants as members of a gang, which would have made their punishment more severe. “They were talking about how these young people were dressed, what corner they were hanging out on and the music they were listening to,” Harris said. “I remember saying: ‘Hey, guys, you know what? Members of my family dress that way. I grew up with people who live on that corner. […] I still have a tape of that kind of music in my car.’”
Harris was also motivated by a desire to advocate for victims of abuse. While attending high school in Montreal, she realized that a friend was being sexually abused by her father; Harris invited the girl to live with their family, with Shyamala’s blessing. Seeing that friend’s experience was one reason Harris became a prosecutor. “Some of the most voiceless in the community, the most vulnerable, the most powerless, are victims of crime,” she told the Chronicle, “and I wanted to be a voice for them.”
7. AS A PROSECUTOR, SHE STOOD UP FOR WOMEN AND CHILDREN.
After graduating with her law degree in 1989, Harris soon passed the bar (though she failed the first time). In 1990, she took a job as a prosecutor with Alameda County in northern California. She specialized in child sex abuse trials and domestic violence cases, using her power as a prosecutor against those who hurt the vulnerable. She told The New York Times last year, “When I was prosecuting child molestation cases, I will tell you, I was as close to a vigilante as you can get.”
In 1998, Harris moved to the San Francisco District Attorney’s office, where she headed the career criminals unit, then transferred to the City Attorney’s office, where she led the Family and Children Services division. In 2003, she ran for the office of San Francisco’s District Attorney, winning the election to become the first-ever female DA in San Francisco and the first-ever African-American DA in the state. As district attorney, she continued to go after abusers in court.
But Harris didn’t just show up for women and children in the courtroom. She helped develop a program with the San Francisco Department of Public Health to help emergency rooms spot evidence of child sexual abuse, and she co-founded the Coalition to End the Exploitation of Kids. She pushed for legislation to strengthen laws on the sexual exploitation of minors, and she worked to get San Francisco its first safe house for children escaping from sex work. Harris used her influence in creative ways to support those facing abuse—and punish those perpetrating it.
8. SHE STICKS TO HER PRINCIPLES, EVEN WHEN SHE GETS FLACK.
During her campaign for San Francisco District Attorney, Harris pledged not to seek the death penalty in her cases—a popular stance in liberal San Francisco. But just a few months after she took office, a young police officer named Isaac Espinoza was shot and killed while on duty. Days later, Harris announced that she would not be seeking the death penalty for the perpetrator but would instead pursue life in prison without the possibility of parole. The police union was outraged, as were Espinoza’s family members and a number of prominent California politicians. At Espinoza’s funeral, Senator Dianne Feinstein, who had formerly served as mayor of San Francisco, stood up and declared, “This is not only the definition of tragedy, it’s the special circumstance called for by the death penalty law”—the church full of mourners cheered.
Despite the blowback, Harris stood firm in her decision not to seek capital punishment, which she has argued is no deterrent to crime. In 2007, Espinoza’s killer was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life without parole; Harris spent much of her two terms as DA rebuilding her relationship with law enforcement.
9. SHE HAS INNOVATIVE WAYS OF DEALING WITH CRIME.
In 2005, as district attorney, Harris launched Back on Track [PDF], a program designed to reduce recidivism in San Francisco by offering nonviolent, low-level drug-trafficking defendants job training, life skill-building, and the chance to avoid prison. Members of the program spend 12 to 18 months pursuing a series of personalized goals relating to employment, education, and parenting. Back on Track was highly successful: Just 10% of graduates from the program had reoffended within two years, versus the normal 53% for drug offenders in California. Plus, the program is cheaper than prison.
“I reject the false choice that you either are soft on crime or tough on crime,” she has said, insisting instead that we must be “smart on crime.” Her approach to criminal justice emphasizes preventing crime rather than reacting to it, and rehabilitating offenders rather than considering them lost.
In that spirit, she focused on truancy among elementary schoolers after discovering that 94% of murder victims under age 25 in San Francisco were high-school dropouts. Students who are chronically absent in elementary school are more likely to drop out of high school, and high-school dropouts are more likely to end up in jail or dead by age 35, so Harris began developing programs to help parents improve their children’s school attendance, with the threat of criminal prosecution for parents whose children were habitually absent and who did not respond to other methods of intervention.
10. SHE’S A TRAILBLAZER.
In 2010, Harris ran for Attorney General of California, winning the election to become the state’s first woman, first African-American, and first person of South Asian descent to hold the office. During her time in office, she was a trailblazer in other ways as well, in particular with her attention to technology’s potential for victimization.
In 2012, she sent out notices to app makers reminding them of California privacy laws and warning them her office would pursue penalties should they fail to comply. Harris’s office also prosecuted a San Diego man, Kevin Bollaert, for operating a pair of websites: one inviting people to post “revenge porn” and another that charged those whose photos had been posted to have them removed. In 2015, Bollaert was found guilty on 21 counts of identity theft and six of extortion, and sentenced to 18 years in prison, marking the first time a “revenge porn” site operator had been convicted in California.
Harris made clear her office would take such cases seriously. She told Marie Claire, “This case removes any ambiguity about what's against the law. It also makes clear that a computer can be as lethal as a weapon. Anyone sitting at home with the anonymity of a laptop should be very clear that that will not immunize them from arrest, prosecution, and prison.” Harris’s office also set up a web platform about cyber exploitation, detailing the laws governing it and listing resources for victims.
11. SHE PLAYED HARDBALL WITH THE BANKS.
In her first year as California’s Attorney General, Harris played hardball during a multi-state suit against five major banks accused of improper foreclosure practices during the mortgage crisis. She pulled out of early negotiations, rejecting a multi-state deal that she felt brought too little money to California and protected the banks from prosecution for their actions, despite pressure from the Obama administration to accept those terms. “I took an oath to represent California, and that’s what I was doing,” Harris told The New York Times. “It was about making sure that Californians got what they needed.” Afraid she was jeopardizing the settlement, some pressured Harris to accept the initial terms. “The Los Angeles Times had an editorial saying I should take the deal,” she told San Francisco Magazine. “I got calls from elected leaders in California saying, ‘I hope you know what you’re doing.’”
Ultimately, she triumphed. Harris and her team secured $20 billion in mortgage relief for Californians, as well as the right to levy financial penalties if the banks failed to fulfill their promises in the deal.
12. SHE LOVES TO COOK AND ADVOCATES SELF-CARE.
Harris has a stress-filled life that requires high levels of energy and commitment. How does she cope? “In order to find balance, I feel very strongly about two things in particular in terms of routine. Work out, and eat well,” she said in an interview last year.
She works out every morning, watching MTV and VH1 while she uses the treadmill, or going to SoulCycle. “I love SoulCycle,” she told the San Francisco Chronicle. “It’s like going to the club.” She tells all the young women she mentors that “You’ve got to work out,” insisting, “It has nothing to do with your weight. It's about your mind.”
Harris also advocates eating well, and enjoying your food. She loves cooking, and since she married attorney Doug Emhoff in 2014, she likes to cook with him. “[W]e have fun making meals,” she told Essence. “He's my sous chef and has these goggles that he puts on when chopping onions. It's hilarious.” When things get “really stressful” and she doesn’t have time to cook, she reads recipes to relax.
13. SHE MAY BE THE FIRST, BUT SHE DOESN’T WANT TO BE THE LAST.
Despite her hectic schedule, Harris has made a point to mentor young women. One mentee, Iyahna Smith, now a senior at Howard University, met Harris when she was a high school student in San Francisco. Smith told Essence, “I was part of College Track, a program that provides students from disadvantaged backgrounds an opportunity to go to school. I gave a speech, and during it I mentioned my desire to go to Howard. Afterward, Ms. Harris came up to me, told me it was her alma mater and said she wanted to help.” Harris assisted Smith with her college essays, connected her with internships, and sends her cards with notes of encouragement. “It's just incredible that someone who is so busy and has so much responsibility has been so involved,” Smith said.
For Harris, her commitment to helping others achieve their potential is a value she learned from her mother, who was committed to mentoring her graduate students, simultaneously supporting them and demanding their very best. Harris’s sister Maya said of their mother, “Until her dying day she never lost sight of this notion that if you’ve been able to walk through doors, you don’t just leave the doors open. You bring others along.” Both sisters were inspired by Shyamala’s example. Harris has repeatedly said that her motto is “A saying my mother had, ‘You may be the first, but make sure you're not the last.’”